George Zimmerman, center, with his lawyer, Mark O'Mara, right, at a pretrial hearing in April (Getty Images)

(The Root) โ€” Today I'm putting aside Washington politics to talk about political methods of another kind, in the upcoming second-degree-murder trial of Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman. Instead of voters, Zimmerman's attorneys are trying to sway potential jurors, and the extraordinary campaign could well succeed.

For the past year, the Zimmerman defense team has publicly shared every important development in the case through a website, Twitter account and Facebook page (which no longer exists). The attorneys communicate directly with their client's detractors and supporters alike, posting messages to counter the contempt and what they consider to be falsehoods or to encourage donations to Zimmerman's legal-defense fund. They have also released potential evidence portraying Trayvon as a violent menace, in support of Zimmerman's claim that he was attacked by the unarmed teen and shot him in self-defense last year in Sanford, Fla.

In short, team Zimmerman has been putting on a defense, in the open for any potential juror to see, long before jury selection is set to begin on June 10.

Lead defense attorney Mark O'Mara of Orlando, Fla., has crafted an unprecedented strategy for a criminal case, straight from the communications playbook of an election campaign. Just as the family and defenders of Trayvon used social media and the Internet to build public pressure for Zimmerman's arrest, his attorneys have used the platforms to gain an advantage in preparing his defense.

When the jury pool enters the courtroom, there won't be a soul who doesn't know something about the shooting, which occurred during an altercation between the 29-year-old Zimmerman, acting as a neighborhood-watch volunteer, and 17-year-old Trayvon. The question is whether their opinions were influenced by the defense or by Trayvon's family and supporters.


"We don't know what the jurors will see. Even in a perfect world, none of that extraneous stuff is supposed to matter, but it does," says crisis-management specialist Eric Dezenhall, who advised attorneys representing Michael Jackson in a 2005 molestation trial in which the singer was acquitted. "The reason to engage in an online campaign is to assess a trending narrative: What do people believe? Do they believe Zimmerman is a trigger-happy racist? Do they believe Trayvon Martin is more menacing than his childhood pictures show? The defense team has to figure out what's resonating."

I wrote about some of this for NPR last year, particularly the fact that the prosecution is at a disadvantage without a gag order placed on the attorneys:

Prosecutors are free to monitor such public [media] forums, but they are prohibited from participating in the discussions. But the defense can fully participate, analyze the prevailing opinions, and build their strategy accordingly โ€ฆ

"All the social media could make jury selection for the prosecution really problematic because you don't know what information [jurors] have had access to," says Barry Krisher, a retired prosecutor who served 16 years as the state's attorney for Palm Beach County, Fla. "My concern is, do they have a version of the facts in their mind that I have to counteract before I even put my case on?"


The judge on Tuesday denied a fourth request by the prosecution for a gag order but restricted the defense from bringing up at trial Trayvon's prior marijuana use and other information.

Thing is, the judge may be too late to protect jurors from prejudice, because team Zimmerman posted loads of damaging information about Trayvon online a week ago. The documents feature text messages and photos from Trayvon's cellphone, including messages he sent in which he bragged about fights and smoking marijuana.

And the ruling isn't final: The defense will get to argue at trial that these facts are relevant, which means jurors could still hear evidence that Trayvon had a history of violence and trouble at school and may have been under the influence of marijuana during the confrontation.ย 


Meanwhile, the defense can test its approach against a year's worth of social media chatter. For instance, tweets raising questions or strong opinions about certain evidence can prepare attorneys for what to expect from a jury, helping them to hone their legal argument.

It's a powerful resource, as Florida jury consultant Amy Singer told me for NPR:

Singer analyzed some 40,000 tweets for the defense team of Casey Anthony, who was found not guilty last year in the death of her young daughter โ€ฆ If prosecutors had applied the same scrutiny to social media users following the case, Singer says, they could have "sharpened their focus and better explained in court those things that were important to people [online]."


Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.